Of the nine member of the class of 2007, more have spent time in prison than the NFL. Two were incarcerated, one is still, two have chances of playing in the NFL and the rest graduated with degrees after relatively low-key college playing careers.
The ink wasn’t even dry on about 3,000 letters of intent that were signed Wednesday. High school football players all over the country signed and faxed their NCAA letters of intent, which pledged the next four or five years of their athletic careers to college football programs in exchange for a free education.
Lee Owens knows what many of those players were thinking. He has been a high school head coach (Massillon), a major college assistant coach (Ohio State), the head coach at a mid-major program (Akron) and now is at Division II Ashland University.
He knows it because he has helped feed the beast that is an 18-year-old kid’s ego.
“On signing day, everybody thinks they have arrived,” Owens said. “The truth is, you haven’t arrived. If you’ve arrived anywhere, you’ve only arrived at the beginning.”
Stark County had nine players sign letters of intent for full-ride football scholarships. The county had a player go to Michigan (Dymonte Thomas), one to Ohio State (Gareon Conley), a couple to the Mid-American Conference, another out west to Oregon State (Kyle Kempt) and even a cadet at the Air Force Academy (Jake Riley).
What becomes of them?
Nobody really knows. Thomas, who starred four years at Marlington High School, has been labeled as the most likely to have an NFL career.
He’s 18, playing a dangerous sport.
As good as he is — recruiting analysts across the country rate him among the best in the country — he is still a long way from the NFL.
The county’s recruiting class of 2007 — all of whom are finished with college — is a good one to look back on. As many as five of those nine players were thought to have potential to become college football stars and dip their toes into the NFL water.
More players from that class have sat in a prison cell than sat on an NFL bench.
“I definitely wouldn’t have believed that,” said Brian Gamble, one of the biggest stars of that class, and still is chasing an NFL dream. “I would have told you it wouldn’t be me (not making it), but I was young and naive.”
The only player from the ’07 class to have even a small taste of the NFL is Devon Torrence. Even then, Torrence hasn’t made an NFL roster, or stayed with a team long enough to have service credit toward a league pension.
Torrence was a two-year starter at Ohio State. He spent time on a couple of practice squads in the NFL last season, the last one with the Bengals.
An objective look at the class of 2007 would say Torrence — who also played two seasons of short-season minor league baseball while going to Ohio State — was the most successful of the nine players who signed that year. He enjoyed success on the field and graduated with a communications degree.
Page 2 of 6 - Not everyone ends up like that.
Two of the class of 2007 ended up in prison. One is there until 2021. But six of them graduated with college degrees. The jury still is out on Gamble, who is 24 and trying to make the most of a Division II second chance.
Arguably the best player from the ’07 class was McKinley linebacker Disi Alexander. In high school, he was a 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker who ran like lightning and hit like thunder.
“Disi was one of the best players I ever played against,” Gamble said. “He was mean. He would hit you. He could run. I could see him playing at the next level.”
Some observers of McKinley football still believe Alexander is the best player to come from the school in the last 25 years.
“He had more talent than all of them,” said Scout.com recruiting analyst Bill Greene. “It’s unbelievable how good he was. ... If he did everything in high school that he should have, he would have been a Big Ten starter for three years and he’d be working on an NFL career right now.”
Alexander didn’t make it through a semester at the University of Toledo.
He spent three years, however, in the Lorain Correctional Institute.
“I went in prison young,” said Alexander, who was 19 when he started his sentence. “You go in prison and you see all this potential lost on the world in there. The other guys in there know, too.”
By the time Alexander started serving his three-year sentence for drug possession, another heralded member of the Class of 2007 — Kendall Washington — already was in the same Lorain prison.
Washington was dismissed from the West Virginia football team in 2008 and arrested two months later for aggravated burglary, robbery and felonious assault.
“Kendall was in there and would play flag football during recreation time,” Alexander said. “He was all over the field.”
Washington spent four years at Lorain before being released. Within a year, he was back in prison. He was sentenced in January for another aggravated robbery, felonious assault and a gun specification. He won’t be released until 2021.
Alexander has been out of prison since April. He is trying to turn his life around. He has worked his way to becoming a franchisee of a cleaning business, Anago Cleaning Service.
He looks back on the last seven years of his life and doesn’t hesitate on what he did wrong.
“I never would have left college,” Alexander said.
Because his combination of grades and test scores did not meet NCAA requirements, Alexander was a Proposition 48 student at Toledo. It is an NCAA rule that allows nonqualifiers to pay their own way through school for a season, prove that they can do the class work and then that university can put the athletes on scholarship. But Prop 48 players can’t work out with the football team, and that helped Alexander quickly lose interest in college.
Page 3 of 6 - Impatient and looking for a way to make easy money, Alexander found a “life on the streets,” and started making the terrible decisions that landed him in prison.
“I didn’t want to do the school side of school,” Alexander said. “I remember when my uncle, Chris Freeman, took me to school he told me on the way there, ‘College is what you make of it. If you want it to be boring, it will be boring.’ He told me that freshman year was the biggest year of my life. It can make or break me.”
Truer words never were spoken to Alexander.
Why do some kids make it and some don’t?
That is a question Owens has asked himself many times. This offseason, he and his coaching staff researched every player who signed to play at Ashland over the last nine years. Then they rated those players as a success on the field, off the field and in the classroom.
Ashland’s coaching staff looked at the traits of those who were a success in all three areas. The perfect Ashland recruit, according to the data the staff collected, comes from a parochial or rural school district, from a traditional two-parent home and middle-class socioeconomic status and majors in business, education or sports management with at least a 21 on his ACT.
“It’s harder and harder to find those kids, and especially harder to find the kids from traditional homes,” Owens said. “But there are exceptions to the rule. But you only have the time, resources and energy to take so many risks. If you take too many risks, you run out of time and resources and you’re going to get fired.
“If you do take a risk on a kid and put them in the right culture and surround them with things they need to be successful, you can hit on them. But if a young man is an academic risk and there are character flaws, I don’t want anything to do with him because you have strike one and two and you’re just waiting for strike three to happen on your campus.”
Alexander was a player Toledo took a risk on.
He didn’t have an easy life growing up. His father killed himself when he was a toddler. He spent at least a portion of his McKinley career living with a girlfriend. He missed his sophomore season at McKinley because he stole a car as a freshman.
He doesn’t use his upbringing as an excuse.
“My mother has always been in my life,” Alexander said. “I knew right from wrong. That isn’t an excuse for what I did.”
What does the world hold for this year’s class?
Page 4 of 6 - Most likely, they will enjoy four or five years of college and graduate without owing any student loans. Making a living at playing football is still a longshot.
The bulk of the 2007 class finished this way.
Morgan Williams went to Toledo with Alexander, and like his former McKinley teammate, he was a Prop 48 student. Williams stayed with it and had success with the Rockets. He graduated last summer with a degree.
Charles Baab went to Colgate and graduated with an education degree. He teaches in Florida. Andrew Dailey played through injuries at Penn State, but ultimately those injuries took a toll on his body. He still graduated from Penn State and works in sales. Jackson’s Rob Reiland graduated from Miami University, as did Hoover’s Ken Staudinger.
“You have to work extremely hard,” Staudinger said. “It was a lot more difficult than I thought. The amount of time and effort was more than I imagined it would be with practice, and film study and drills and then extra film and school. I didn’t expect the offseasons to be as challenging as they were.”
Signing day was surreal for Staudinger. He never imagined himself playing college football on scholarship. Now he is in the management program at Sherwin-Williams.
Torrence is still chasing his dream.
“I’m at a point in my life that I have to make it happen,” Torrence said. “That comes from a desperation for me to succeed. ... I’ve been placed in this position to fight through this and make it.”
Alexander has three 3-year-old children — all born while he was in prison — and he wants to make sure he’s there for them.
“I used to think if my dad was there for me, or that ... but I don’t want that thought to ever cross my kids’ minds,” Alexander said.
He still has college eligibility left. Now, he’s 6-2, about 235 pounds with an outside linebacker’s build. The thought crosses his mind to chase his dream.
“There was never any doubt in my mind how good I was,” Alexander said. “Growing up, I didn’t dream about playing in the NFL. I knew I was going to play in the NFL and I knew I was going to be rich. ... I didn’t want to wait to get there.”
Then there is Brian Gamble. He is the last in the class of 2007 to play college football.
That’s hard to say.
“Oh, man ... I don’t know if you have enough paper and pens to write down everything I would have done differently,” Gamble said.
He has worked for an asphalt company, a gas station, the Massillon Boys & Girls Club and Coca-Cola during two breaks from college to help support his two children, another on the way, plus a stepdaughter.
Page 5 of 6 - There was a time when Gamble was close to being a miss. Originally he signed with Illinois and caught a touchdown pass against Ohio State in Ohio Stadium as a freshman. However, he left Illinois to raise his first son. That was after he was dismissed and eventually reinstated to the team at Illinois for getting into a bar fight.
He dropped out of college.
“There comes a time when you have to grow up,” Gamble said. “I was immature and naive about a lot of things coming out of high school. It took me to take some lumps before I figured out the real world is a hard place. The real world is real.”
Owens offered him a final opportunity at Ashland. Gamble didn’t fit the mold of an Ashland recruit. He is the kind of player a college coach takes a chance on. There is a high-risk, high-reward return.
Gamble made the most of the opportunity, but he also dropped out of Ashland once and took another two years off.
Ultimately, he played this past season and capitalized. He was the conference defensive back of the year and a Division II All-American.
Gamble still has a year of college eligibility left. However, an agent signed him and he is training for the NFL Draft. Owens believes Gamble will be on an NFL roster.
“He’s as good a player as I’ve ever coached,” Owens said. “He’s as good as the defensive backs I was around at Ohio State. He’s as good as Domenik Hixon, only more physical.”
But Gamble does not have a college degree. If he doesn’t make it in the NFL, finishing college may be a challenge.
“We are all rooting for him,” Owens said. “He’s been on a journey and he’s worked hard. We all want the best for him.”
It is a journey.
No one arrives on signing day.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Here’s who eight Stark County football players signed with on signing day in 2007 and how things have turned out for them so far:
• Disi Alexander, McKinley to Toledo
Enrolled at Toledo for a semester, dropped out and eventually spent three years in the Lorain Correctional Institute for drug possession. Lives in the area and works for a cleaning business.
• Charles Baab, Alliance to Colgate
Lettered one season (2008), graduated with an education degree and teaches in Florida.
• Andrew Dailey, Massillon to Penn State
Played in 38 of 39 games from 2008-10, graduated and works in sales.
• Brian Gamble, Massillon to Illinois
Suspended after freshman season with the Illini for a bar fight. Reinstated and left the team after the birth of his first son. Played in 2009 at Ashland, but landed on academic probation and didn’t play in 2010 or ’11. Was conference defensive back of the year in 2012 and signed with an NFL agent.
Page 6 of 6 - • Rob Reiland, Jackson to Miami University
Played four years for the RedHawks, lettering in 2008 and 2009 before graduating.
• Ken Staudinger, Hoover to Miami University
Played four years for the RedHawks, lettering in 2008 and 2009 before graduating. Is in the management training program with Sherwin-Williams.
• Devon Torrence, Canton South to Ohio State
Was drafted by the Astros out of high school, and NCAA rules allowed him to earn a signing bonus while playing football for Ohio State. Started two years for the Buckeyes. Spent time on various NFL rosters and finished the 2012 season on Cincinnati’s practice squad before being released. Is a free agent looking to land with another team.
• Kendall Washington, St. Thomas Aquinas to West Virginia
Dismissed from the West Virginia football team in 2008 and arrested two months later for aggravated burglary, robbery and felonious assault. Spent four years at Lorain Correctional Institute before being released, but within a year, he was back in prison for another aggravated robbery, felonious assault and a gun specification. He won’t be released until 2021.
• Morgan Williams, McKinley to Toledo
Lettered all four years for the Rockets (2008-11), setting a Toledo record when he ran for 330 yards against Miami in 2008. Graduated last summer.